Monday, March 27, 2017

Our Trip to Scotland: The Last Day

It's 4am at the Days Inn on El Camino Real just a few miles from the San Francisco airport. I'm sitting in the dark while Robert and Jonah still sleep. Isaac is trying to stay busy in the dark with a Harry Potter book on his tablet.

Today we will fly back to Portland. Home. It will be good to be home after traveling for so long. But I wanted to write about our last day and get my memories down before they are gone.

Robert had arranged to meet some friends he'd baptized on his mission. They live about an hour south of Edinburgh and were going to drive up and meet him. The boys and I were going to head over to the National Museum of Scotland, The Elephant House and Greyfriar's Bobby and then meet Robert around lunch time.

The museum didn't open until 10am, so we got a table at the Elephant House, the very cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter when she was just a single mum, living on benefits. We got hot chocolates and pastries and I tried to suck in the vibe. There were several people with laptops. I just whipped out a notebook and hand wrote until our food came. The bathrooms are covered in graffiti honoring Rowling and the books.

The museum was spectacular. There was an impressive room of taxidermied animals even more exciting than a zoo because they were all posed perfectly and we could get close up. Even the ceiling was covered with all kinds of fish, whales and even a hippo! We spent the most time in that room, just because Jonah and Isaac were so enthralled. I think I would have preferred more Scottish history rather than natural history, but I knew the boys didn't want to be dragged around to that stuff anymore.

When we switched to a different room, though, and I saw a fashion display right next to an interactive science display, I let them hang out in the science room (complete with dolly the first cloned sheep!) while I indulged in looking at fashion through the ages. There were crinolines and corsets and even modern things like shoes only Lady Gaga could wear.

At noon, we went out to the street to meet Robert. We really had no way of communicating because our phones were not able to text for some reason. We could email, but one of us had to have wifi which I had spottily inside different buildings . . . anyway, it was like 1995 all over again. 

We met up with Robert just fine, but were sad to learn that his friends had not been able to make the drive. It had snowed that morning. In Edinburgh it didn't stick and was sunny by 9. But further south, the roads were covered and there was 6 to 12 inches. They said they got on the road but then just got stuck in traffic. So they never showed up. They sent a message which Robert got after an hour of waiting. 

So, we tried to pick up the day and fit in as much as we could. Isaac navigated us to a parking spot and then on a walking path that took us through "closes" or narrow alleys between the ancient buildings back up to Warhammer. He did a great job because when we popped out on the Royal Mile, we were right next to Warhammer.

We purchased the starter kit for Warhammer and had it sent to our Oregon home, then went to lunch on Cockburn Street, which is the street where they are doing some Avenger's 3 filming. According to the gal at the restaurant we lunched at, none of the actors will actually be filming in Edinburgh. Just doubles. Sad.

Here's the boys in front of the kebab restaurant. I'd seen the kebab restaurant the day before when the boys were painting their Warhammer figures and just assumed they were up to speed on the fake restaurant (it is actually a tourist shop, but the producers needed a kebab shop RIGHT IN THAT SPOT so they bought off the owner for a month and completely changed it to a kebab shop and in a month they will change it back) but Jonah and Isaac didn't know about Avengers 3, so when I told them, they were more than happy to pose for pictures.

We went back to our amazing apartment and Robert called his friends while the boys and I rested. With just a few hours left we decided to walk Princes Street. Jonah only wanted one thing: A snow globe for his collection. But he did not want to walk and walk. He also didn't care about eating dinner. So after we walked to the souvenir shop and then got Jonah a sandwich from the Tesco, we gave him the keys to the apartment and let him walk back by himself. I was a tiny bit nervous, but it was rush hour and there were plenty of people on the street lining up for busses and it was still light.

Jonah left and walked maybe the half mile back to the apartment, then sent an email that he'd made it just fine. Whew! Also, how cool that my 14-year-old got to navigate the streets of Edinburgh by himself. 

Isaac, Robert and I walked and walked and took pictures. It was cold. Isaac and I were getting tired and hungry. So we turned around and walked back towards the apartment, knowing there were a bunch of restaurants on Queensferry street. We ended up at Zizzi's Italian restaurant and had a delicious meal. 

Wednesday morning was just packing up and getting ready to go. I was sad and happy to be returning home. If only there was a way for us to live there, Robert to work, the boys to go to school, and me to sight see and explore for months and months . . .

The flight back was uneventful and we didn't find out until we'd landed in San Francisco that there's been a terror attack in London near Parliament and four people had been killed. London is about an eight hour drive from Edinburgh, so proximity wise, it was very far away. But as a tourist who had been enjoying a "trip of a lifetime," my heart ached for the people who were injured and lost their lives just trying to do the same. 

The last bit of our trip will be a flight into Portland later this morning. It will be good to be home. But I reserve the right to plan a pretend move to Scotland until I start to obsess about Ireland. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Our Trip to Scotland: Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Tourist Trap

We woke up to rain, then sun on Monday morning. This is what it looked like outside our big upstairs window.

We also got a parking spot right outside our apartment on the street, which was good luck. We had a breakfast of food we'd picked up at the grocery store: cereal, pastries and some fruit.

We've also been able to do laundry here, and even though there isn't a dryer, it's been very helpful as we'd run out of clean clothes.

We headed out around 9:30 and drove to a parking garage a pretty good walk from our destination, Edinburgh Castle. It was sunny/rainy/freezing wind all day. And at one point I saw hail. The Castle was very impressive and we saw the "Honors of Scotland" which are the crown, scepter and sword that have been used in a bunch (or all?) of the Scottish-British coronations. Also the Stone of Destiny, which I was totally fascinated by.

Jonah and Isaac got tired of the castle after lunch, which was fine. We cued up our Rick Steves Royal Mile podcast and walked and listened to all the interesting facts about the mile between the castle and Holyrood Palace. We saw Deacon Brodie Pub (the real Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde), original high rise tenements like Gladstone's Land, the Writer's museum (closed), statue of David Hume, statue of Adam Smith, where the last hanging in Scotland was, St. Giles Cathedral, the grave of John Knox, Holyrood Palace (which we were too late to get in to) and the Parliament building (which we entered by the skin of our teeth before closing).

As you can imagine, the boys were worn out and not interested in all of the fun details that Robert and I loved. So when Robert saw a store called Warhammer with Hobbit-like displays in the front window, we decided to step in and let the boys look around. Ninety minutes later we were leaving. (This is part of the reason we missed entrance to Holyrood Palace.)

It turns out that Warhammer is a complex fantasy-sci fi game kind of like Dungeons and Dragons. There are models that you put together and paint and a game you can play. The store employees had figures for Jonah and Isaac to glue together and paint. The painting took a while and turned out looking way better than I thought would be possible. But the store employee spent time teaching them all the techniques. After the painting, he showed them out to play the game. Then, there was just a little bit of finishing up of their figures and wouldn't you know it . . . if we spent £100, they would ship home for free!

Well after they spent so much time with Jonah and Isaac, I felt kind of obligated to buy a the starter set. But Robert said we would think about it overnight and gauge the boys' interest and come back the next day. I think we will be back there tomorrow.

Stopping in was the right thing to do. The boys both said Warhammer was the highlight of their whole day. Yes, even better than seeing the ACTUAL crown, scepter and sword that has been used for hundreds of years, was lost for 111, then found by author Sir Walter Scott buried in a chest, and now on display. Plastic fantasy figure > The Honors of Scotland.

We stepped in to a pub called Tolbooth Tavern for dinner and I finally tried haggis. I got the Tolbooth Tower which was tatties, nips, and haggis in a big stacked column. I was very pleasantly surprised. The horror of haggis is highly overrated in my opinion. The dish was delicious and everyone tried some, although Jonah and Isaac just had one bite.

Now we are back home and are looking down the barrel of our last full day in Scotland. We leave early Wednesday morning, so whatever we do tomorrow will be it. Probably forever. On the to-do list is The Elephant House, The National Gallery, Greyfriars Bobby (which should take about 2 minutes. We already saw it today) and some souvenir shopping. Robert is going to visit with some people he baptized and hasn't seen for over 30 years and catch up with us later.

Oh! I almost forgot . . . Robert bought me a silver ring today (I forgot my wedding ring at home) that says "soul mate" in Galic. Or, as Isaac pointed out, we hope that's what it says. I thought it was somewhat unique. Silly, I know, seeing how we purchased it in a tourist shop. But later in the day, I saw lots of them in another place right next to all the Outlander inspired rings. Oh well. I love the ring and am glad, after nearly a week that we look married again.

Our Trip to Scotland: Welcome Sabbath Morning

We woke up in our Stirling Holiday Inn Express, had a basic breakfast (no haggis offered, not that I would have tried the Holiday Inn Express haggis) and headed to Edinburgh for church just 45 minutes away. We had it easy

Robert's friend Paul Brewster, and his wife Linda, drove from Preston, England—a three hour drive—to meet us there for church. Robert and Paul were missionary companions a lot of years ago and had served together in Edinburgh.

The ward was more "international" that I'd expected. There were many "American" speakers as well as some people from China and South America. I didn't get everyone's country of origin, but I'm certain there were more countries/continents represented. The bishop was on his first week and said how much he'd enjoyed getting out to visit families in their home, but apologized if it took a while to get to everyone as there were 993 people in the ward. (There were probably 150 in attendance).

Jonah and Isaac attended Sunday School with all the youth, and then priesthood with all the Young Men. They doubled the Young Men class size.

Robert, Paul, Linda and I got to tour the mission home, right next door to the church building, during Sunday School hour and both Robert and Paul had great memories from their time at the mission home. President Donaldson was very kind.

We headed back to church and Robert talked with people in the hallway and eventually found the son of one of the people he'd baptized while on his mission. The mother had moved to a different city and Robert was able to get her contact information, as well has her parent's contact information.

After church we went with the Brewsters out to lunch. This was possibly the best part of the day because Linda drove their car and we followed. It was so nice not to have to think about where to drive, where to turn, what lane to be in, who was going to plow us down, what pedestrians we might hit, why cars were parked in our lane causing us to have to use the oncoming lane to maneuver around. Blood pressure level: Chill.

She even led us to our Airbnb apartment near Dean Village and I don't think it was a coincidence that we got a great parking spot very close on the street. The apartment was (and is) amazing. It was built in 1891 for the Scottish artist Charles Martin Hardie and has original wood floors and iron spiral staircase. There is a lovely picture window upstairs that looks out onto a gorgeous medieval church and a viaduct style bridge. Everything about this place is fantastic including the above neighbors who are the Edinburgh Society of Musicians. I'm listening to their music through the wall now.

I want to move here.

Anyway, after gawking at the apartment for a while, we took a walk over to Dean Village, which was just as charming and beautiful as I had expected, and then Paul and Linda left to drive back to Preston.

Later we walked down to Princes Street to McDonalds for dinner and just came back to relax at the apartment. It was a great Sunday and I'm so happy to be in this apartment.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Our Trip to Scotland: Skye and Raasay

After listening to rain pelt the roof all night at the Luib House, I woke with low expectations for our dream day on the Isle of Skye. Our goal: to drive the Trotternish Loop and see all the stunning natural wonders and have lunch at Skye Pie cafe.

We're from Oregon. We know how weather works. Yesterday we had some luck with lining up sun breaks with our getting out of the car. Just because it's raining at one moment doesn't mean it will rain all day. Right?


It rained all day. Sometimes it was raining hard, like when we hiked part way up to the Old Man of Storr. Other times it was barely misting, like when we climbed the fence to look around the ruins of the Duntulm Castle.

Jonah and Isaac sat in the car for almost everything today. Isaac read Harry Potter almost non stop and Jonah took a lot of naps.

We drove by Skye Pie Cafe too early. Rick Steves says they open at 11. Also, it's too early for lunch before 11 anyway, so we did a loop of the western most part of the Trotternish Loop, a part of the island with the utterly asinine invention: the one lane road.

Here's how it works. You drive as fast as you possibly can down this curvy, pot hole-ridden, bumpy road that fits only one car. Every so often there will be a turn out for you should you come upon a car approaching you from the other direction. The goal is to be close to one of these turnouts before getting plowed into.

Oh, and just for fun, we'll throw in random sheep in the road.

Let's just say my stress level from driving is back up to heart attack. But without the side of stroke. So that's something, I suppose.

Spoiler Alert: we didn't die on the one lane road, and the Skye Pie cafe was closed for the season. So we headed to Portree for lunch. It was fine.

After lunch we walked around Portree a very little bit. No one in my family cares to browse bookstores as much as I do. One of us likes to browse candy stores. Another could look at replica swords and knives all day and the other prefers looking at maps. So we were definitely out of sync when it comes to looking around. I wandered down to the harbor that is known for it's row of pastel houses to get a few pictures, but evidently I take too many pictures and I was fussed about it until we did what? What?? What did they want to do?

Go back and sit in the car.

We loaded up on shortbread and other treats from a bakery and drove to the ferry terminal to sail to Raasay. The journey was 20 minutes and our accommodations here are quite impressive. Odd, but impressive. I'm not sure what to make of this renovated old estate that started out as the estate of Clan Macleods after the original home was burned down after Culloden in 1746.

The best part of this place has to be the stately library with a wood burning stove, lots of leather chairs and couches, and a stunning view out to the water. I got to sit there for about 30 glorious seconds before someone came in and suggested we take the car out on one lane Scottish roads again.

I'm going to call it a day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Our Trip to Scotland: All the Weather

I'm sitting in a Bed and Breakfast in Luib, on the Isle of Skye, while pea sized hail pelts the roof-line window in our upstairs bedroom as I compose this update.

Our hostess, Marilyn, says we have free wifi but only for email and information. No uploading or the rest of the guests' wifi will slow down. So I will write now and post pictures later.

We woke to bright sun and blue skies at Kingsmill Hotel in Inverness. The hotel was pretty nice and we all slept like logs. Especially those who were waiting for the bathroom to brush teeth, etc. They found they couldn't wait the 2 minutes and promptly fell asleep in their clothes and were nearly impossible to wake up.

We had a really lovely breakfast buffet and did NOT try the haggis. I will admit I chickened out. I would have tried a bite, but the pieces were huge (huge for haggis, which I suppose isn't that big, but still . . .) and no one else wanted to share a piece with me.

We headed over to Culloden Battlefield and by the time we got there, the weather was cold, windy and starting to rain. Most of the exhibit was inside and I was worried that Jonah and Isaac would be bored, until we found them at the feet of one of a costumed volunteer explaining every kind of weapon available to the British and Scottish in 1745. They were entranced, especially when he showed them how one could hold a leather covered targe and an dirk in one hand to handily disembowel a person.

We then headed out to the battlefield in the freezing wind and rain. It was miserable, and we didn't really get the full benefit of the audio tour because of frostbite potential. The whole time I kept thinking that the highland clans fought in this weather wearing SKIRTS!

We headed into downtown Inverness for some lunch and ended up at a mall. We tried to go somewhere else, but it was the only parking we could find. After lunch we walked around a bit. The skies were blue again and I snapped this picture of a lovely unicorn statue. (unicorn statue not pictured).

A few minutes later it was hailing.

Luckily, we were in our car and on the way to Loch Ness.

We pulled into the parking lot of the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, but because a) we didn't have a lot of time and b) the place looked a little bit groovy, we decided instead to give the gift shop a quick look around and head to Urquhart Castle.

Isaac got this darling hat for his birthday. Which was today.

Urquhart Castle was awesome and, pro tip, we got a 3-day pass for £48 which will allow us entrance into Sterling and Edinburgh Castles, too. Family entrance to just Urquhart would have been £27 for our family.

The castle was a hit with the boys, but at dinner tonight when I asked them the highlight of their day, it was that costumed guy at Culloden with the guns and dirks and swords.

We drove from Urquhart Castle as fast as we could to the Isle of Skye. Still, cars were passing us on the narrow, winding road. Also, it was snowing. Today's driving was less hair raising. I only had to shout, "Left side!" once in the morning and the rest of the day Robert was fantastic. Blood pressure level: rollercoaster. (Yesterday's was heart attack with a side of stroke).

We had planned to tour Eilean Donan castle on our way to Skye, but it was closed and we were in a hurry to get to our B&B before check in time expired at 7pm. Or as they say here in Scotland, 19:00. We had clearly planned too many activities for one day. Do you know how hard it is to pick things to do in Scotland for 7 days? It feels more like you are instead choosing all the things you CAN'T do. Still it was okay. We stopped to see Eilean Donan and Robert and Jonah ran up for a few pictures and ran back. I got this picture from the car. (Picture of Eilean Donan will be forthcoming).

We checked in to the Luib House and ran out for some dinner. Isaac got a baked Alaska for dessert and we quietly, and not annoyingly, sang Happy Birthday to him while he dug in.

Tomorrow: The Trotternish Loop for some beautiful hikes. Lunch at the Pie in the Skye (hopefully!) and then a ferry to some other island for our next night's accommodations.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Our Trip to Scotland: The First 30 Hours

We started our trip to Scotland at 4:30 am Tuesday morning when we drove to the Portland Airport. We then boarded a flight to San Francisco, better described as a 90 minute fight for the armrest with turbulence.

In SFO, we waited for 4 hours for our connecting flight to Keflavik, Iceland. The flight attendant outfits AND the flight attendants were darling. Isaac asked what language they were speaking and when I told him, "Icelandic," he said, "That's a language?" 

Yes, it definitely is a language. However, when they were hawking rental iPads full of movies and games to use the whole flight, I could not tell if they said they were $16.99 or $60.99. We got one, so I hope the price was $16.99.

Here we are, happy, at the beginning of a 7-hour plane ride. 

We landed in Iceland and the flight attendant announces, "Welcome to Keflavik. The current time is 3:30 am and the weather changes every 10 minutes.

We had a couple hours in Keflavik, so we hung out, spent some króna, and tried to nap a bit. (That's Isaac in the background).

I should mention the bathrooms in the Keflavik airport are spectacular. They didn't have bathroom stalls so much as individual, closed off, totally private bathrooms. And the faucets both wetted and dried my hands automatically. It was a little cray, but awesome at the same time.

It was about this point that Robert admitted my Rick Steves Scotland guidebook is better than the Scotland guidebook he carefully researched on Amazon before purchasing. Winning!

Other things learned in Iceland: Americans can be awful. No one needs to know that much detail about how you almost joined the mile high club, or what your feet looked like before your pedicure, or how you got that scratch on your leg. And why (for the love of all that is good and wholesome), did you SnapChat a picture of the scratch to all your friends?

Trip goals: discretion, grace, an not being annoying.

Did you know that when you board the airplane in Iceland to Edinburgh you have to go outside? They take you in a bus across the tarmac to a waiting plane. You get out of the bus and then you climb some stairs. You wait on the stairs in the blowing wind and 34 degree rain just before it starts freezing rain and snow while they load the plane. Jonah, pictured here in a short sleeve shirt, claimed he was not cold.

The two-hour flight to Edinburgh was literally a snooze fest.

Finally, we get to Edinburgh and we get our car.

Folks, they gave us a car. With little more than a "don't forget to drive on the left side of the road," (and a bunch of signatures and up-sell tactics), they gave us the keys and set us off. It's possible it took multiple tries for us to get out of the airport complex. The Scots LOVE their round-abouts.

This is not our car, but a poorly executed picture of the kids. I blame the sun being in my eyes. 

Also, the roads are insane. It's like we're dealing with a country whose infrastructure was planned a thousand years ago! 

Tonight we are in Inverness and we took a short drive over to Castle Street for a Rick Steves endorsed dinner. I suggested something else and Robert said, "Is it in Rick Steves' book?" We saw the Inverness castle (Rick says don't bother: it's not that old and it's only a courthouse now, not anything exciting) and walked around the grounds. We paid our respect to Flora MacDonald for saving my ancestor, and moved along.

I have a feeling I'll be trying haggis soon.

Next up: Culloden Battlefield (if Isaac lets me fulfill a dream by going. He said since it is his birthday tomorrow, and a battlefield sounds boring, he'd rather do something else. Like go to a drug store and buy a lot of candy). We are also seeing Loch Ness, Castle Eilean Donan, and The Isle of Skye.

(Isaac says, why do you guys have to plan everything out so there is no room for exploring? I say, "what would you like to do?" He says, "I don't know. I haven't spent all that time researching like you did.)